If you are lucky enough to have a backyard swimming pool, this summer you were able to fill it without being watched by a government agency. Don’t become overconfident about the future.
Regulatory proposals are being debated that could eventually impose a permit system for any water use averaging 100,000 gallons per day in any 30-day period. This may sound like a lot, but government regulations tend to grow broader and tighter. Although commercial water users are the present target, future lower thresholds could suck even some homeowners into the regulatory vortex.
The thrust for water-use permits comes from alleged threats to Great Lakes volumes by outsiders thirsting to siphon off so much water that the lakes would suffer. To thwart them legally, the Great Lakes region, including Michigan, purportedly must show itself to be consistent by regulating its own water uses stringently.
The issue begs for a sense of proportion. How large is a volume of 100,000 gallons of water? And why is that threshold proposed for adoption?
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, mid-May water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron were five inches above what they were a year earlier. That means the lakes added about 4,000,000,000,000 (4 trillion) gallons of water.
Suppose some humans siphoned off 10,000,000,000 (10 billion) gallons per year. Those lakes would lose about one-eightieth of an inch. Lake Michigan averages that much loss in natural evaporation in a little more than one workday. Its annual evaporation is some 10,000,000,000,000 (10 trillion) gallons per year. The Great Lakes lose and add water on a natural scale that makes human activity look like a droplet.
The proposed regulatory daily water-use threshold of 100,000 gallons is the amount in a swimming pool 90 feet by 30 feet and 5 feet deep on average. Lift a swimming pool full of water out of Lake Michigan, and what is left? The same Lake Michigan.
Withdrawals from land-based water supplies also appear puny at a daily rate of 100,000 gallons. This is slightly greater than one gallon per second. The Grand River in Lansing, hardly a major watercourse during summertime low flows, was moving at a rate of nearly 4,000 gallons per second the evening of July 19 — 100,000 gallons in less than half a minute, nearly 14 million gallons an hour, well over 300 million gallons per day.
So what justification exists for regulation at the low 100,000 gallon-per-day threshold? Given its significant impact, certainly it has been derived through sound and sober deliberation, hasn’t it?
In truth, of course, regulation does not work that way. The figure of 100,000 in part reflects a regulatory predilection for round numbers. If 1,000,000 is considered an inappropriate threshold for a given situation, the removal of one zero can provide the next lowest alternative, which is 100,000. It is a handy number.
The problem with such a use of numbers is clear in the advocacy of some activists who believe the 100,000 gallon regulatory threshold is too high. For the next step down, they want to drop a zero to get another round number — regulation of users of 10,000 gallons a day. This is a smaller volume than the water in many backyard swimming pools.
The focus of current proposals appears to be commercial users. But if the water resource truly needs hammerlock government regulation to protect it, small towns and suburban subdivisions that have home wells collectively using more than a stipulated threshold would pose as great a "threat" as business use. Regulators should then be scrutinizing lawn watering, car washing and domestic swimming pools.
Michigan’s rivers move trillions of gallons each year and remain at routine levels. Michigan’s groundwater is replenished by trillions of gallons of precipitation every year and is not being depleted. The Lower Peninsula may contain as much groundwater as there is water in Lake Michigan, which is well over 1,000,000,000,000,000 (1 quadrillion) gallons.
Against that natural backdrop, a permit system hitting businesses at an arbitrary 100,000 gallon threshold becomes risky. Regulation has consequences. Only businesses can lift the state out of its economic doldrums. Michigan cannot afford to engage in overreactionary economic self-punishment.
Daniel Hager is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.